Dental caries, also known as tooth decay or cavity, is a disease wherein bacterial processes damage hard tooth structure (enamel, dentin and cementum). These tissues progressively break down, producing dental caries (cavities, holes in the teeth). Two groups of bacteria are responsible for initiating caries: Streptococcus mutans and Lactobacillus. If left untreated, the disease can lead to pain, tooth loss, infection, and, in severe cases, death. Today, caries remains one of the most common diseases throughout the world. Cariology is the study of dental caries.
The presentation of caries is highly variable; however, the risk factors and stages of development are similar. Initially, it may appear as a small chalky area that may eventually develop into a large cavitation. Sometimes caries may be directly visible, however other methods of detection such as radiographs are used for less visible areas of teeth and to judge the extent of destruction.
Tooth decay is caused by specific types of acid-producing bacteria that cause damage in the presence of fermentable carbohydrates such as sucrose, fructose, and glucose. The mineral content of teeth is sensitive to increases in acidity from the production of lactic acid. Specifically, a tooth (which is primarily mineral in content) is in a constant state of back-and-forth demineralization and remineralization between the tooth and surrounding saliva. When the pH at the surface of the tooth drops below 5.5, demineralization proceeds faster than remineralization (i.e. there is a net loss of mineral structure on the tooth's surface). This results in the ensuing decay. Depending on the extent of tooth destruction, various treatments can be used to restore teeth to proper form, function, and aesthetics, but there is no known method to regenerate large amounts of tooth structure. Instead, dental health organizations advocate preventive and prophylactic measures, such as regular oral hygiene and dietary modifications, to avoid dental caries.
Signs and symptoms
Dental explorer used for caries diagnosis.A person experiencing caries may not be aware of the disease. The earliest sign of a new carious lesion is the appearance of a chalky white spot on the surface of the tooth, indicating an area of demineralization of enamel. This is referred to as incipient decay. As the lesion continues to demineralize, it can turn brown but will eventually turn into a cavitation ("cavity"). Before the cavity forms, the process is reversible, but once a cavity forms, the lost tooth structure cannot be regenerated. A lesion which appears brown and shiny suggests dental caries was once present but the demineralization process has stopped, leaving a stain. A brown spot which is dull in appearance is probably a sign of active caries.
As the enamel and dentin are destroyed, the cavity becomes more noticeable. The affected areas of the tooth change color and become soft to the touch. Once the decay passes through enamel, the dentinal tubules, which have passages to the nerve of the tooth, become exposed and causes pain in the tooth. The pain may worsen with exposure to heat, cold, or sweet foods and drinks. Dental caries can also cause bad breath and foul tastes. In highly progressed cases, infection can spread from the tooth to the surrounding soft tissues. Complications such as cavernous sinus thrombosis and Ludwig's angina can be life-threatening.
There are four main criteria required for caries formation: a tooth surface (enamel or dentin); caries-causing bacteria; fermentable carbohydrates (such as sucrose); and time. The caries process does not have an inevitable outcome, and different individuals will be susceptible to different degrees depending on the shape of their teeth, oral hygiene habits, and the buffering capacity of their saliva. Dental caries can occur on any surface of a tooth which is exposed to the oral cavity, but not the structures which are retained within the bone.
There are certain diseases and disorders affecting teeth which may leave an individual at a greater risk for caries. Amelogenesis imperfecta, which occurs between 1 in 718 and 1 in 14,000 individuals, is a disease in which the enamel does not fully form or forms in insufficient amounts and can fall off a tooth. In both cases, teeth may be left more vulnerable to decay because the enamel is not able to protect the tooth.
In most people, disorders or diseases affecting teeth are not the primary cause of dental caries. Ninety-six percent of tooth enamel is composed of minerals. These minerals, especially hydroxyapatite, will become soluble when exposed to acidic environments. Enamel begins to demineralize at a pH of 5.5. Dentin and cementum are more susceptible to caries than enamel because they have lower mineral content. Thus, when root surfaces of teeth are exposed from gingival recession or periodontal disease, caries can develop more readily. Even in a healthy oral environment, however, the tooth is susceptible to dental caries.
The anatomy of teeth may affect the likelihood of caries formation. Where the deep grooves of teeth are more numerous and exaggerated, pit and fissure caries are more likely to develop. Also, caries are more likely to develop when food is trapped between teeth.
The mouth contains a wide variety of oral bacteria, but only a few specific species of bacteria are believed to cause dental caries: Streptococcus mutans and Lactobacilli among them. Lactobacillus acidophilus, Actinomyces viscosus, Nocardia spp., and Streptococcus mutans are most closely associated with caries, particularly root caries. Bacteria collect around the teeth and gums in a sticky, creamy-coloured mass called plaque, which serves as a biofilm. Some sites collect plaque more commonly than others. The grooves on the biting surfaces of molar and premolar teeth provide microscopic retention, as does the point of contact between teeth. Plaque may also collect along the gingiva.
Bacteria in a person's mouth convert glucose, fructose, and most commonly sucrose (table sugar) into acids such as lactic acid through a glycolytic process called fermentation. If left in contact with the tooth, these acids may cause demineralization, which is the dissolution of its mineral content. The process is dynamic, however, as remineralization can also occur if the acid is neutralized by saliva or mouthwash. Fluoride toothpaste or dental varnish may aid remineralization. If demineralization continues over time, enough mineral content may be lost so that the soft organic material left behind disintegrates, forming a cavity or hole. The impact such sugars have on the progress of dental caries is called cariogenicity. Sucrose, although a bound glucose and fructose unit, is in fact more cariogenic than a mixture of equal parts of glucose and fructose. This is due to the bacteria utilising the energy in the saccharide bond between the glucose and fructose subunits.
The frequency of which teeth are exposed to cariogenic (acidic) environments affects the likelihood of caries development. After meals or snacks, the bacteria in the mouth metabolize sugar, resulting in an acidic by-product which decreases pH. As time progresses, the pH returns to normal due to the buffering capacity of saliva and the dissolved mineral content of tooth surfaces. During every exposure to the acidic environment, portions of the inorganic mineral content at the surface of teeth dissolves and can remain dissolved for 2 hours. Since teeth are vulnerable during these acidic periods, the development of dental caries relies heavily on the frequency of acid exposure.
The carious process can begin within days of a tooth erupting into the mouth if the diet is sufficiently rich in suitable carbohydrates. Evidence suggests that the introduction of fluoride treatments have slowed the process. Proximal caries take an average of four years to pass through enamel in permanent teeth. Because the cementum enveloping the root surface is not nearly as durable as the enamel encasing the crown, root caries tends to progress much more rapidly than decay on other surfaces. The progression and loss of mineralization on the root surface is 2.5 times faster than caries in enamel. In very severe cases where oral hygiene is very poor and where the diet is very rich in fermentable carbohydrates, caries may cause cavities within months of tooth eruption. This can occur, for example, when children continuously drink sugary drinks from baby bottles.
Other risk factors
Reduced saliva is associated with increased caries since the buffering capability of saliva is not present to counterbalance the acidic environment created by certain foods. As a result, medical conditions that reduce the amount of saliva produced by salivary glands, particularly the submandibular gland and parotid gland, are likely to lead to widespread tooth decay. Examples include Sjögren's syndrome, diabetes mellitus, diabetes insipidus, and sarcoidosis. Medications, such as antihistamines and antidepressants, can also impair salivary flow. Moreover, sixty-three percent of the most commonly prescribed medications in the United States list dry mouth as a known side effect. Radiation therapy of the head and neck may also damage the cells in salivary glands, increasing the likelihood of caries formation.
The use of tobacco may also increase the risk for caries formation. Some brands of smokeless tobacco contain high sugar content, increasing susceptibility to caries. Tobacco use is a significant risk factor for periodontal disease, which can cause the gingiva to recede. As the gingiva loses attachment to the teeth, the root surface becomes more visible in the mouth. If this occurs, root caries is a concern since the cementum covering the roots of teeth is more easily demineralized by acids than enamel. Currently, there is not enough evidence to support a causal relationship between smoking and coronal caries, but evidence does suggest a relationship between smoking and root-surface caries.
Intrauterine and neonatal lead exposure promote tooth decay. Besides lead, all atoms with electrical charge and ionic radius similar to bivalent calcium, such as cadmium, mimic the calcium ion and therefore exposure may promote tooth decay.
Primary diagnosis involves inspection of all visible tooth surfaces using a good light source, dental mirror and explorer. Dental radiographs (X-rays) may show dental caries before it is otherwise visible, particularly caries between the teeth. Large dental caries are often apparent to the naked eye, but smaller lesions can be difficult to identify. Visual and tactile inspection along with radiographs are employed frequently among dentists, particularly to diagnose pit and fissure caries. Early, uncavitated caries is often diagnosed by blowing air across the suspect surface, which removes moisture and changes the optical properties of the unmineralized enamel.
Some dental researchers have cautioned against the use of dental explorers to find caries. In cases where a small area of tooth has begun demineralizing but has not yet cavitated, the pressure from the dental explorer could cause a cavity. Since the carious process is reversible before a cavity is present, it may be possible to arrest the caries with fluoride and remineralize the tooth surface. When a cavity is present, a restoration will be needed to replace the lost tooth structure.
At times, pit and fissure caries may be difficult to detect. Bacteria can penetrate the enamel to reach dentin, but then the outer surface may remineralize, especially if fluoride is present. These caries, sometimes referred to as "hidden caries", will still be visible on x-ray radiographs, but visual examination of the tooth would show the enamel intact or minimally perforated.
Destroyed tooth structure does not fully regenerate, although remineralization of very small carious lesions may occur if dental hygiene is kept at optimal level. For the small lesions, topical fluoride is sometimes used to encourage remineralization. For larger lesions, the progression of dental caries can be stopped by treatment. The goal of treatment is to preserve tooth structures and prevent further destruction of the tooth.
Generally, early treatment is less painful and less expensive than treatment of extensive decay. Anesthetics — local, nitrous oxide ("laughing gas"), or other prescription medications — may be required in some cases to relieve pain during or following treatment or to relieve anxiety during treatment. A dental handpiece ("drill") is used to remove large portions of decayed material from a tooth. A spoon is a dental instrument used to remove decay carefully and is sometimes employed when the decay in dentin reaches near the pulp. Once the decay is removed, the missing tooth structure requires a dental restoration of some sort to return the tooth to functionality and aesthetic condition.
Restorative materials include dental amalgam, composite resin, porcelain, and gold. Composite resin and porcelain can be made to match the color of a patient's natural teeth and are thus used more frequently when aesthetics are a concern. Composite restorations are not as strong as dental amalgam and gold; some dentists consider the latter as the only advisable restoration for posterior areas where chewing forces are great. When the decay is too extensive, there may not be enough tooth structure remaining to allow a restorative material to be placed within the tooth. Thus, a crown may be needed. This restoration appears similar to a cap and is fitted over the remainder of the natural crown of the tooth. Crowns are often made of gold, porcelain, or porcelain fused to metal.
A tooth with extensive caries eventually requiring extraction.In certain cases, endodontic therapy may be necessary for the restoration of a tooth. Endodontic therapy, also known as a "root canal", is recommended if the pulp in a tooth dies from infection by decay-causing bacteria or from trauma. During a root canal, the pulp of the tooth, including the nerve and vascular tissues, is removed along with decayed portions of the tooth. The canals are instrumented with endodontic files to clean and shape them, and they are then usually filled with a rubber-like material called gutta percha. The tooth is filled and a crown can be placed. Upon completion of a root canal, the tooth is now non-vital, as it is devoid of any living tissue.
An extraction can also serve as treatment for dental caries. The removal of the decayed tooth is performed if the tooth is too far destroyed from the decay process to effectively restore the tooth. Extractions are sometimes considered if the tooth lacks an opposing tooth or will probably cause further problems in the future, as may be the case for wisdom teeth. Extractions may also be preferred by patients unable or unwilling to undergo the expense or difficulties in restoring the tooth.
Personal hygiene care consists of proper brushing and flossing daily. The purpose of oral hygiene is to minimize any etiologic agents of disease in the mouth. The primary focus of brushing and flossing is to remove and prevent the formation of plaque. Plaque consists mostly of bacteria. As the amount of bacterial plaque increases, the tooth is more vulnerable to dental caries when carbohydrates in the food are left on teeth after every meal or snack. A toothbrush can be used to remove plaque on accessible surfaces, but not between teeth or inside pits and fissures on chewing surfaces. When used correctly, dental floss removes plaque from areas which could otherwise develop proximal caries. Other adjunct hygiene aids include interdental brushes, water picks, and mouthwashes.
However oral hygiene is probably more effective at preventing gum disease than tooth decay. The brush and fluoride toothpaste have no access inside pits and fissures, where chewing forces food to be trapped. (Occlusal caries accounts for between 80 and 90 percent of caries in children (Weintraub, 2001). The teeth at highest risk for carious lesions are the first and second permanent molars.)
Professional hygiene care consists of regular dental examinations and cleanings. Sometimes, complete plaque removal is difficult, and a dentist or dental hygienist may be needed. Along with oral hygiene, radiographs may be taken at dental visits to detect possible dental caries development in high risk areas of the mouth.
For dental health, frequency of sugar intake is more important than the amount of sugar consumed. In the presence of sugar and other carbohydrates, bacteria in the mouth produce acids which can demineralize enamel, dentin, and cementum. The more frequently teeth are exposed to this environment, the more likely dental caries are to occur. Therefore, minimizing snacking is recommended, since snacking creates a continual supply of nutrition for acid-creating bacteria in the mouth. Also, chewy and sticky foods (such as dried fruit or candy) tend to adhere to teeth longer, and consequently are best eaten as part of a meal. Brushing the teeth after meals is recommended. For children, the American Dental Association and the European Academy of Paediatric Dentistry recommend limiting the frequency of consumption of drinks with sugar, and not giving baby bottles to infants during sleep. Mothers are also recommended to avoid sharing utensils and cups with their infants to prevent transferring bacteria from the mother's mouth.
It has been found that milk and certain kinds of cheese like Cheddar can help counter tooth decay if eaten soon after the consumption of foods potentially harmful to teeth. Also, chewing gum containing xylitol (a sugar alcohol) is widely used to protect teeth in some countries, being especially popular in the Finnish candy industry. Xylitol's effect on reducing plaque is probably due to bacteria's inability to utilize it like other sugars. Chewing and stimulation of flavour receptors on the tongue are also known to increase the production and release of saliva, which contains natural buffers to prevent the lowering of pH in the mouth to the point where enamel may become demineralised.
Other preventive measures
The use of dental sealants is a means of prevention. A sealant is a thin plastic-like coating applied to the chewing surfaces of the molars. This coating prevents food being trapped inside pits and fissures in grooves under chewing pressure so resident plaque bacteria are deprived of carbohydrate that they change to acid demineralisation and thus prevents the formation of pit and fissure caries, the most common form of dental caries. Sealants are usually applied on the teeth of children, shortly after the molars erupt. Older people may also benefit from the use of tooth sealants, but their dental history and likelihood of caries formation are usually taken into consideration.
Calcium, as found in milk and green vegetables are often recommended to protect against dental caries. It has been demonstrated that calcium and fluoride supplements decrease the incidence of dental caries. Fluoride helps prevent decay of a tooth by binding to the hydroxyapatite crystals in enamel. The incorporated Calcium makes enamel more resistant to demineralization and, thus, resistant to decay. Topical fluoride is also recommended to protect the surface of the teeth. This may include a fluoride toothpaste or mouthwash. Many dentists include application of topical fluoride solutions as part of routine visits.
Furthermore, recent research shows that low intensity laser radiation of argon ion lasers may prevent the susceptibility for enamel caries and white spot lesions. Also, as bacteria are a major factor contributing to poor oral health, there is currently research to find a vaccine for dental caries. As of 2004, such a vaccine has been successfully tested on animals, and is in clinical trials for humans as of May 2006.